Bending Gender – Until it Snaps

So a while ago I posted a link to a docco about kids growing up with “Gender Identity Disorder” or “Gender Dysphoria.” Translation: kids who are convinced they’re the wrong sex. Something about it bothered me at the time, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. And the bothering bothered me, because (as I’m sure you’ve cottoned) I’m kinda liberal.

I couldn’t grasp why it should bother me so much that kids might want to change their gender. After all, I have zero issue with transgendered adults, and I’ve always upheld that kids have a whole lot more smarts and self-awareness than we give them credit for. If anything, I think the transition into adulthood, those perilous teenage years of surging hormones, might be something akin to chemical warfare on common sense: things that seem so clear to kids can be absolutely impenetrable to their supposedly wiser elders.

So why was I so uncomfortable with the idea of a ten year old male beginning hormone therapy?

Ten is young. Really young. But by ten, I’d had more than a few crushes. Had I the vocab for it, I’d have called myself ‘straight’ by then, if it had occurred to me to differentiate myself on the grounds of whom I wanted to crash-tackle in the sand-pit, as western culture expects me to do today (Whoops, there goes another piece of The Culture Sniper’s poorly guarded identity). I think it’s important to bear this in mind in this discussion of gender identity, because our conception of sexual identity is predicated on a sociocultural understanding of gender as a) real and innate, and b) fixed. So for a male, of any age, to identify as homosexual, he must first identify as, well, male. Ditto for a females. Homosexuality is an attraction to sameness, but sameness of gender can only be determined by the fixing of gender itself.

The problem is that gender is neither real, innate, nor fixed. Thus, insofar as sexuality is understood only in relation to gender, neither is sexuality real, innate or fixed. In fact, taking the logic to the extreme, it could be argued that sexuality as defined by gendered attraction doesn’t even exist.

OK, I’ve skipped ahead a bit. Let me rewind and explain where I’m getting these whacky ideas from.

I’d like to introduce you to two women: Judith Butler and Alice Dreger.

Judith Butler kind of accidentally founded Queer Theory in the nineties. Accidentally. I’m not sure how you accidentally found an entire arm of cultural inquiry, but there you have it. The interesting thing is that she accidentally founded Queer Theory by theorising not sexuality but gender. <;- Point in case for my claim that the two are inextricably linked, and by debunking one, you necessarily debunk the other. Anyway, Butler's central claim is that gender is 'performative'. This basically means that gender is not a noun but a verb: it's not that we ARE our gender, so much as we DO our gender. So I wear my hair long and put on makeup and high heels not because there is anything innate in my body that suggests or demands that I behave in this way, but because I have learned culturally that this is what a woman is. And by doing so, I reify, perpetuate and make the gender of feminine by doing the gender of feminine.

I do it because it’s done and it’s done because I do it.

There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t shave my head, wear flat shoes, and step out with a naked face. Indeed, many women do exactly that. And what does our culture say to them? Well, in the words of spoken word artist Lacey Roop, our culture asks “Are you a dude or a dyke?” as though choosing not to adorn ourselves with the cultural accouterments of this constructed idea of femininity can mean only one thing: not that she just doesn’t like lip-gloss, but that she must be gay… because sexuality is so bound up in gender.

It’s ridiculous, of course. I could shave my head tomorrow and I’d be no more gay than I am today. My sexual orientation has zero to do with my haircut, funnily enough.

So we can see that ‘gender’ as a facet of identity is a construct, and so we make distinct gender from sex, which in this discourse and for the purposes of this discussion shall refer to anatomical sex, i.e. what bits you got. But surely, I hear you cry, surely sex is fixed! And so this discussion of gender identity, whilst very interesting, is even more arbitrary than gender; a lofty musing for academics who have nothing real to contribute!

Perhaps.

But not.

For those of you who might have done a bit of reading in the field, I am not going to talk about Julia Kristeva at this point. Mostly because that would be drifting off in the stratosphere of theoretical mumbo-jumbo that a) I barely understand myself, and b) is difficult to demonstrate real-life implications with. Instead, I turn to Kristeva’s scientific alter ego, Alice Dreger.

Dreger works with people “at the edge of anatomy” , with a particular interest in intersexed people.

Intersexed?

Intersexed.

It means people who anatomically don’t fit into our neat little male/female binary. Men with a fully functional uterus. Women with testes. And any other combination you can think of. These are naturally occurring bodies, but because they don’t fit the mould – a mould that we seem to have imposed on nature – we think of these bodies as abnormal. Dreger’s central contention is that sex is not as straight forward as we’d like to think, that in fact it exists on a spectrum and beyond, on axes of a plethora of intersecting lines, and that this division between male and female is, well, kinda made up. That’s what the science suggests (dare I say proves?) anyway.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of my argument.

Gender is a pattern of behaviours constructed in arbitrary response to sex, which is itself a far more complex thing than we have previously imagined: sex is not a neat little binary, but a complex matrix of possibilities. Thus, given our understanding of sexuality is entirely dependent on the fixity of sex and gender, it is difficult to claim that sexuality is anything but just another arbitrarily constructed sociocultural concept. (Cue usual rant about stupid anti-gay BS and fast forward to next point).

What does this have to do with transgender kids?

It comes down to this: how can gender identity every be a disorder if gender is made up? Is the child sick, or is the culture just, well, a bit screwed?

Of the kids that were old enough to be experiencing sexual attraction, all of them were attracted to the same sex. I wonder (and I really do just wonder: I don’t know or make any solid claim on this) if the real issue with these kids is a discomfort with their sexuality because the culture has told them that boys kiss girls and girls kiss boys, and ‘dykes’ are gross and ‘fags’ are some how lacking. I have to wonder if these kids would be so desperately unhappy with their anatomy that they want to cut it off or stitch it on, take drugs to stop their voices dropping, or bring out hair, and completely remodel their bodies if we lived in a culture that said, “You know what? Love whom you love. Wear what makes you comfortable. Love the face in the mirror.”

Certainly, as with transgendered adults, I assume not all kids diagnosed with “Gender Identity Disorder” have same-sex feelings. But again I ask, is the child sick, or is the culture? What exactly is wrong with a a child with female genitalia wanting to cut her hair short and wear pants and sneakers and heavy-metal band tees? If gender is arbitrary, the binarised sexed body an idea more than a scientific fact, and sexuality nothing more than a concept wrapped around other concepts, you have to conclude that there’s nothing wrong with it.

Instead we should be asking, what is wrong with a culture that trains its young to emotionally brutalise each other for something as arbitrary as a hair-cut and choice of footwear? What is wrong with a culture that essentially makes shit up, designs a game no-one can win, refuses to publish a rule-book, and then punishes the losers? What is wrong with a culture that has its kids so convinced there are right and wrong ways to be born, right and wrong ways to love, that these kids want to chemically and surgically alter their bodies, be it in pursuit of a new sex or a new nose or bigger boobs or a smaller belly?

What is wrong with that?

EVERYTHING.

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About culturesniper

The Sniper The Sniper tries to keep her (shit) ‘their’ identity secret, but basically anyone who reads this knows who she is. Anyway. The facade is fun. The Sniper is a militant agnostic, fervent supporter of gay rights, and out-and-proud NERD. She kinda likes Jesus. She kinda likes Buddha. She kinda likes Harry Potter, for much the same reasons. The Sniper works in the creative industries. That’s why she has all these whacky progressive ideas. What a fruit loop, hey? She has some stuff to say. This is where she says it. You can contact the sniper at theculturesniper@gmail.com

6 thoughts on “Bending Gender – Until it Snaps

  1. This is the second blog I’ve come across discussing this subject today. And thinking about it is making my head hurt TBH…

    As I understood it (and it makes most sense to me), it is sex which is more fluid, and gender which is more fixed. And so for the transgendered person (which used to be called transexual…?) no matter how difficult or disastrous (economically, socially) it is to attempt to change sex with hormones and surgery, it is still *relatively* easier (more positive) to do that than it is to try to spend the rest of your life trying to bend your gender the wrong way.

    (In simplistic terms) a transgendered person does not say “my body feels like it has the wrong gender in it”. They say “I feel like I am in the wrong body”. In other words gender is WHO we are and the body is ‘just’ the vehicle we drive. But the body is ALSO how we express WHO we are socially…. and this is what makes life most impossible for those with the ‘wrong’ body. Having the wrong body means having to bend one’s gender the wrong way for every social interaction.

    Therefore, I am a little confused by the recent trend whereby everyone regards gender as this totally fluid formless thing. If gender was so fluid then surely transgendered people wouldn’t feel such a need to change their sex (as explained above)?

    The way I see it, it’s *people* who can be very fluid and flexible, but not so much gender itself. Gender is like one’s place of birth, one’s ancestral homestead, one’s inherited house and land. One can travel all around the world and spend decades at a time living in hotels or other rented accommodation….. but home is still home.

    Or to put it another way….. our gender does not prevent us from being extremely fluid, but that does not mean that gender itself is some shallow, arbitrary, superficial / artificial thing like a scarf or a hat…. unless……

    …..UNLESS we live as shallow, arbitrary, superficial / artificial people ourselves. Like, for example, living as consumers, narcissists, ‘inauthentic beings’, wannabe celebs etc.

    I can’t help feeling that the trivialising of gender is just a result of the trivialising of humanity as a whole – in this age increasingly dominated by corporate mass entertainments and dumbed down consumerism.

    I also balk at this apparent fixation with gender and sexuality. To me gender is more like a force of nature, a principle, a type of energy, a type of consciousness. Sex (sexuality) is just a tiny expression of that principle.

    I also feel uncomfortable with the idea of children’s ‘unconventional’ expressions of gender behaviour being so enthusiastically ‘catered for’ in such a PC way – such as giving a child hormones at age 10.

    Surely that is to come full circle? I mean, if non conventional gender behaviour (as a child!) is regarded as proof of the ‘onset’ of gender identity disorder then isn’t that is just another oppressive label and stereotype!?

    In fact I would question the very idea that non conventional gender behaviour as a child even is non conventional. Most children experiment with gender and cross dressing at some point – which would make it perfectly normal. It’s often more strictly gender conforming children who turn out to become transgendered later in life. They were over-compensating all along.

    How easy it would be for an ‘open minded’ parent and/ or progressive social worker or doctor to inadvertently steer a child towards transgenderism (is that a word?) in the same way children are driven into stage school, or medical school. If a child is made to feel ‘special’ for being ‘artistic’ or ‘brainy’ it is often hard for them to even think to ACTIVELY OPT OUT of the education/ career path which is being set up for them – which is what they effectively have to do if they want to avoid being railroaded down that path. I think the same is true if the child is made to feel ‘special’ because they like to dress up and play with dolls (or whatever). Children will often behave in a way which they perceive as pleasing their parents – they will do what is expected of them. If the parents are too eager to ‘support’ their child’s gender non conforming behaviour they might actually turn a natural phase into something involving hormones and surgery… and a lifetime of confusion and regret.

    This all seems very dangerous to me 😦

    *Be there* for your children (of course!) ……. but for god’s sake let them be!

  2. Hi Abandonculture –

    Thanks for your detailed comment 🙂

    Just quickly, when I use the term ‘sex’ in this piece, I’m not talking about sexual intercourse, I’m talking about anatomical gender, as in does someone have a penis or a vagina.

    Also, I’m not at all trivialising gender or claiming it is ‘fluid’. Quite the opposite – gender is a huge (and, IMHO, VERY problematic) part of our constructed performative cultural system. It is EXTREMELY rigid, but that doesn’t make it REAL or innate. Gender identity (as opposed to the sexed body) is a socially constructed idea, and we are all to some extent bound by its expectations. Even if we choose to subvert it, we feel its ramifications, as Lacey Roop did when she was asked if she were a ‘dude or a dyke’. A man cannot simply chose to wear a dress casually in our culture without attracting stares. A woman can’t step out without makeup without being accused of lacking in pride in her appearance, as though a woman’s worth is only in her aesthetic.

    What I’m saying is that gender as a set of behaviours and cultural expectations is actually made up – it has no real basis, no relationship to ‘nature’. In simplistic terms, there is absolutely NOTHING about my body, with its breasts and womb, that insists it must be clothed in soft lines and flowing fabric and framed by long hair and enhanced by make-up. But this is certainly what the dominant culture expects of me. And I, personally, actually conform to that. It doesn’t bother me in my own life, but there was a time when as a ten year old child I cut my hair off like a boy and wore overalls because I was a rough-and-tumble kinda kid and dresses and long hair just weren’t practical, and at the age of TEN I was teased as a lesbian. Apart from being confused about why being a lesbian should be something to tease someone about (we were a very liberal family, and whilst I am straight, I copped the ‘lesbo’ teasing throughout my schooling because I am a little bit different) it shocked me even then, as a child, to realise that people would draw such huge conclusions from the way I cut my hair and dress. Our culture is profoundly gendered, and it is a problem because gender – the behaviours and dress styles and demanours we culturally associate with anatomical sex – is actually arbitrary, i.e. made up.

    To further complicate the matter, when we look into the science of it and realise that anatomical sex is not even a fixed thing in nature, that this division between the male body and female body is, like gender identity, an arbitrary binary that we have imposed on nature and not innate to biology, then gender and all the cultural implications of it is revealed as a farce.

    Sexuality is one such cultural implication. Seeing that gender is a farce illuminates sexuality as a similarly flawed concept, because it is dependent on gender. How many children suffer brutal teasing at school on the grounds of sexual orientation (in my case an orientation I didn’t even identify with!)? And when we understand that sexuality as nomenclature, as a collection of categories that respond to the presumption of the REALITY and INNATENESS of gender and anatomical sex, we see that homophobia (or, indeed, heterophobia, which I have seen in full flight! Or bisexual individuals copping it from the gay community for ‘not picking a side’ or from the hetero community for being supposedly promiscuous) is not only ridiculous on humanitarian grounds, but competely divorced from reality.

    I would go so far as to say that gender is a construct designed over the milennia to control people, much like class systems.

    I agree that in the short term, helping people ‘reassign gender’ (in this case gender meaning anatomical sex) seems like the best solution, but the culture needs to shift in the long run, and I’m not convinced that gender reassignment doesnt actually hinder this shift by giving the culture a get-out-of-gaol-free card.

    In summation, what angers me so much about this phenomenon is realising how much pain people suffer, believing that they are somehow wrong, when the standard by which they are measuring their ‘correctness’ is in fact a milennia old cultural LIE.

    • Just to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting YOU were trivialising gender etc but that our current mainstream culture does – sorry if that wasn’t more clear. I am generally in agreement with what you wrote….I was mostly just adding my own thoughts to it 🙂

      But I do still think there needs to be more of a distinction made between the gender that we are ‘internally’ (our ‘essence’) and the gender that we express outwardly and is interpreted by ourselves and others according to the conventions of the day. (if that makes sense!).

      For instance long permed hair, make up and tights for men used to be considered very manly attire. Today it is usually considered effete or effeminate. Until the 20C baby boys used to traditionally be dressed in pink and girls in blue (I kid you not!). It is gender EXPRESSION (and interpretation) which is the illusion – the social construct – but not gender itself. Gender expression (and interpretation) shifts and changes just like any fashion or language does over time. But I maintain that gender expression (and interpretation) is not gender itself, it is only the way we choose to express (and interpret) it outwardly.

      “Come thee hither, pray tell me of your vacation” and “Come over and let’s hear all your holiday gossip then” are two different ways of expressing the same thing. It’s not the meaning which changes, but just the outward way of expressing it. Meanings themselves aren’t arbitrary or flexible, even if the ways we express (or interpret) them is. This also is how I view gender vs gender expression. Gender is like meaning (it just ‘is’) whereas gender expression is like the language conventions of the day used to express that meaning (ie arbitrary).

      So I would argue that gender itself is NOT a social construct. But the way we might express it (and interpret that expression) in any given age IS a social construct.

      And so (I think!) my point is that a lot of the time when people think they are battling against fixed ideas about gender in society they are actually battling against the current (and arbitrary) trends in gender expression.

      The language (the social conventions) of gender expression are very limited, and as such it is often frustrating and inconvenient (like with your experiences as a child)…. however, at the same time it is (ironically) the very fact that the language of gender expression is so limited and fixed in the moment that makes social interaction – including gender expression – so easy and efficient (and thus convenient!) for most of us most of the time.

      It’s a double edged sword!

      To a great extent I think we have become slaves to (and victims of) the convenience and efficiency of such strict conventions. This is probably because we are so heavily enslaved economically and socially by the so called ‘ruling elite’ that most of us just don’t have the time or energy to express ourselves freely.

      In the competitive, hierarchy slave ship we are born into, such free expression is simply too ‘inefficient’, to time consuming (too much fun).

      Phew! I need to lie down now 😉

      • Oh, OK. I see what you’re saying. I can’t quite grasp your conception of what gender is, though. At any rate, I think we can agree that the cultural rules surrounding the expression of gender, whatever we take that to be, are limiting and damaging.

  3. […] received a detailed and thought-provoking comment on my post Bending Gender – Until it Snaps, which made me realise I may not have been expressing myself clearly in that […]

  4. “… At any rate, I think we can agree that the cultural rules surrounding the expression of gender, whatever we take that to be, are limiting and damaging….”

    Yes absolutely.

    The harm doen by ‘culture’ is what I mostly blog about. 🙂

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